War on Liberal Arts: What's Behind the Recent Attacks of Political Science and Black Studies?

When Rep. Jeff Flake passed an amendment withdrawing National Science Foundation support for political science research, lots of people in and out of the academy grew justly concerned. But few connected Flake's amendment to another academic scandal that broke just a week earlier: Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Naomi Schaefer-Riley’s incendiary critique of black studies. The parallels aren't obvious.

Flake, a six-term Republican from Arizona, first failed to convince the House to defund the NSF entirely, and then succeeded in pulling the $80 million of political science moneys (the vote was 218-208) – a fate usually reserved for the NEH or, especially, NEA. Schaefer-Riley, meanwhile, is a controversial blogger at the CHE, and in a recent “truth-speaking” editorial she dismissed the field of black studies for being "a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap … [with dissertations] so irrelevant [that] no one will ever look at them.” 

What's important isn't what they did, but how they said it. Both carelessly scanned research projects to demonstrate their self-evident triviality, and both appealed to an imagined, highly ideological standard of reasonableness in doing so. The shared rhetorical strategies offer a glimpse into a troubling and increasingly common tendency that refuses and, indeed, openly mocks the academy in all its professional intellectual engagement.

Rep. Flake offered a laundry list of expendable research: “$600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do … $301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements.”

“These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics,” he said, “but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them,” an astonishing suggestion given that the gendered division of labor in politics, the causes and effects of public communication, and the quality of democratic responsiveness are hardly the esoteric ramblings of armchair academics. (NB: Rep. Flake himself earned a graduate degree in political science.) 

Schaefer-Riley responded to a set of Chronicle articles taking stock of black studies on the heels of a conference for the dozen or so PhD-granting programs in the field. Her post seemed to channel Rep. Flake, relying on the apparently obvious absurdity and obscurity of research projects to argue, essentially, for their destruction. (Unlike Rep. Flake, however, Schaefer-Riley personally attacked the researchers themselves, in this case a cadre of young scholars at Northwestern University.) 

“If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”

As Schaefer-Riley made clear in the controversy that proceeded, she didn’t actually read past any abstracts (“it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them …In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read [them]”). She learned all she needed to know from skimming the surface and finding it ridiculous.

For instance: 

“That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.”

There are, of course, important differences between the tone and targets of Rep. Flake and Schaefer-Riley’s attacks. Rep. Flake went after ostensibly uncontroversial research projects pursued within a major, institutionally well-funded discipline – and, in fact, argued that public funding was merely enriching the richest institutions, a dubious position worth its own column. Black studies, on the other hand, is an emerging, insurgent, interdisciplinary field, with a more precarious future, highly vulnerable to political and institutional attacks on its legitimacy. (For a history of the field read Professor Robert Paul Wolff’s excellent and accessible 17-part tutorial.) Schaefer-Riley attacked the field’s substance for not adhering to her own standards of “seriousness,” which would probably put it out of business as such.

One way to think about Rep. Flake and Schaefer-Riley together is that they’re both exceptionally and shamefully lazy thinkers who won’t give the energy to evaluate things they think they don’t like before dismissing them. But I suspect that sitting them down with the research they oppose wouldn’t change their minds.

And so perhaps they aren’t opposed to political science and black studies because they don’t understand them (though clearly they haven’t spent the time to do so) but because they recognize the challenges that these fields potentially pose to the status quo. The NSF hardly funds avant-garde research in political science, but the titles Rep. Flake invoked indicate that, like most good academic work, the research may cast doubts on comfortable assumptions and subject institutional processes to critical scrutiny. Schaefer-Riley, meanwhile, offers an elliptical vision of her alternative vision of black studies, but clearly that wouldn’t square with the approach that the field, in its current arrangement, takes: making disciplinary boundaries and identities unstable while critically and rigorously studying the lived experiences of black and brown people.

So, in short, yes, Rep. Flake and Schaefer-Riley are intellectually lazy. But their dismissals (ineffective, mean, and bullying as they are) suggest that deep threats to academia thrive in these austere times. Critical, thoughtful engagement has apparently gone the way of a robust social safety net: expendable, outdated, and an easy target of slander.